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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Really, Really Ugly.

In the New York Times Book Review this week, Joe Queenan's back page essay, "When Bad Covers Happen to Good Books," is about ugly book covers -- not necessarily that you can judge a book by its cover, but that an ugly cover can dissuade a reader from ever wanting to read a great book.

As Queenan examines his shelves -- which he organizes by read and unread -- he notices a trend: the books that are read are pretty; the unread books are hideous. He writes, "It all added up. Until now, I’d thought that I had set these books aside for so many years because they were too daunting or, in the case of Thomas Mann, too dull. Now I realized that what these books had in common was that they were ugly. Really, really ugly."

I wholeheartedly agree. I blame the fact that I have never gotten through Nabokov's Lolita on the fact that the copy I keep trying to read is a crusty one from the 70s. I actually own a cute paperback version, but the crusty one is annotated, and I feel I'm too dumb to make it through Lolita on my own. (I did manage to watch the movie, though.)

After I read the essay this morning, I went downstairs to the Mississippi collection to see what I could scare up. My friend Ann always raves about Walker Percy's Love In the Ruins, but after examining this copy, I feel certain Percy and I would part ways just a few pages in:

Is it just me, or does that lettering remind you of this?

Remember: three is a magic number.

I also found this particularly frightening copy of The Portable Faulkner. Listen, I'm not taking this thing anywhere:

First, let us discuss the scary faux-paint effect of the "FAULKNER," which, in a certain light, resembles blood, not paint (I'm thinking of the old cover of Helter Skelter, I think). Then there is the equally scary charcoal rendering of Faulkner's haunted, craggy face, looming out and judging you for not being able to understand The Sound and the Fury without Cliffs Notes. (Aside: there are four main sections to The Sound and the Fury; if you're really stuck, try reading the sections in reverse order. I promise you'll follow the story better.)

However, this volume has been well-loved and much checked out over the years, so maybe it's my 2009 eye judging this 1964 paperback. Perhaps in 1964 the lettering was edgy, the charcoal drawing artsy. Who knows? All I know is, the words within deserve better.

Queenan, Joe. "When Bad Covers Happen to Good Books." New York Times Book Review, 3 December 2009.

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